Two new flags flying over the Green Zone,the fortified swathe of central Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris river,symbolise a power shift-on paper,a fundamental one-from the United States to Iraq that took place on New Year’s Day. The Iraqi colours once again flutter outside Saddam Hussein’s old presidential palace,for nearly six years the American-led coalition’s seat of power. Down the road,still in the zone,the Stars and Stripes now flies over the world’s largest American embassy,which opened officially on January 5th.
At the start of the year,with the expiry of their UN Security Council mandate,the 146,000-odd American troops across the country also came under the Iraqi government’s authority for the first time since the invasion of 2003. As part of a security agreement between Iraq and America,the American troops should withdraw from Iraq’s cities by the middle of this year and leave the country altogether by the end of 2011. Relishing the moment,Nuri al-Maliki,Iraq’s prime minister,proposed that January 1st be declared a national holiday to celebrate Iraq’s regained sovereignty.
But many Iraqis say that too few real changes have yet occurred on the ground to make them feel that their country is truly sovereign again. That,they say,will happen only when the last American soldier has gone. American soldiers still help man the main checkpoints between the rest of Baghdad and the Green Zone,though Iraqi soldiers are increasingly prominent there too.
Now the road outside the presidential palace,hitherto controlled by the Americans,is closed; part of a car park opposite has been cleared of vehicles. The Iraqi government insisted that all officials from the coalition countries,starting with America’s proconsul,Ryan Crocker,should vacate the palace completely by December 31st,prompting a hectic dash to remove files and equipment in time.
But in a sign of friction among Iraqis,no one has yet moved in,since Mr Maliki and Jalal Talabani,Iraq’s president,who heads one of the two main Kurdish parties,both claim a right to the massive marble-floored building. Barham Salih,one of two deputy prime ministers,dismissed the stand-off with a smile. “This is politics,” he said. “This is what Iraq is all about.”
In military terms,a shift in the nominal authority over counter-insurgency operations from American to Iraqi hands,which has been happening province by province over the past two years,has yet to make much difference on the ground: American forces still provide the critical air power,logistics and communications that underpin the war effort in areas where fighting is still going on,particularly Nineveh province in the north. But there has been a steady improvement in the quality of Iraqi troops,who now number more than 267,000,alongside 262,000 local police and 37,000 border guards. There are also more than 100,000 “Sons of Iraq”,many of them former insurgents,in militias formed by the mainly Sunni tribal councils; some are being folded into the army and police.
Another tricky issue is the fate of some 18,000 detainees still in American hands. Under the Iraqi-American security accord,they should now come under Iraqi jurisdiction. A new committee is assessing them case by case. In theory,they should either be freed or,if there is enough evidence,prosecuted. Several hundred are foreigners suspected of being jihadists; it is most unlikely that either the Americans or the Iraqis will let them loose,whether or not there is enough evidence for prosecution. And even the local ones cannot count on a mass early release,which Iraq’s Sunni politicians are calling for. Most of them are Sunnis and Iraq’s new Shia establishment is wary of what they might do,even in a more sovereign country.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008